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Cool Store: Charleston Alexander Diamond Importers

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Savior of the Family Business: From early trials and errors, to finding the secret in a combination of science and romance, owner John Sabet changed customers’ expectations of the diamond-buying experience.

Charleston Alexander Diamond Importers

Charleston Alexander Diamond Importers

Address: 7845 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, MD
Owner: John Sabet
Phone: (301) 951-6200
URL: wherethediamondsare.com
Year founded: 1987
Opened featured location: 2005
Total store area: 16,000 square feet
Architect: MV+A
Design firm: Grid/3 International
Building cost: $2.8 million
Interior: $1.5 million
Business revenues: $23 million
Employees: 15


If you think John Sabet exaggerates his passion for his work, consider this: He contemplated building his own apartment in the 16,000-square-foot store he opened in Bethesda, MD, in 2005. “Many people who knew me suggested it, and sometimes I do regret not doing that. I would love to live there on the weekends.” But much as he enjoys presiding over the showplace he designed, his favorite part of the business is buying, not selling diamonds. “I’m on the phone every day having discussions about diamonds,” he says. “If I go a day without speaking to someone in Israel or Belgium I’m having a really bad day. I feel disconnected. It’s a high-pressure, fast-paced business, and I like that.”

THE EARLY YEARS

Romance, Science

John Sabet joined the retail jewelry world at age 22 with a mandate: Save the family business. Trouble was, he admits, he had no knowledge of business or jewelry. His parents launched a store that sold fashion jewelry, but the business was not profitable. “I took over the store and was by myself trying to build the business,” Sabet says. “It was all trial and error.” Studying the market, he realized there was a void locally for bridal jewelry, and so he learned all he could about diamonds and engagement-ring styles.

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He also discovered that few diamonds were being sold with certificates. By 1993, each of his diamonds was sold with a certificate and lab report. First, he captured the romantic imagination of the community, then he backed up romance with science. That’s when he watched the business really take off.

THE STORE

Virtue of Patience

Sabet waited 18 years to open a second store. He went all out, with 16,000 square feet and a prominent corner location. The first floor’s 8,000 square feet is devoted to bridal, while the second floor is filled with fine branded jewelry. In all, he carries about 50 brands. Near the entry, two sitting areas are outfitted with 62-inch plasma TVs, which cycle vendor and brand videos.

Ruth Mellergaard of Grid 3/International designed the interior layout and the store’s 72 cases. Rich materials and textures in neutral shades provide an elegant backdrop for the store’s furnishings. Mellergaard chose comfortable but classic wood office furniture from Bernhardt. The custom cases have anigre wood veneer inside and out and are 4 inches taller than most models, allowing for easy viewing. “It’s like a museum window,” Sabet says. “The jewelry is right in their face. They don’t need to lean over to see it.”

Grid 3 also installed Softview honeycomb-type blinds, which cut the glare and soften afternoon sunlight, but which can be completely concealed in a recessed space in the ceiling when not needed. Both floors have kitchens for catering special events. Sabet’s first-floor office is set at an angle to be inviting to staff and customers. “I wanted it positioned so I could see as much of the store as possible,” he says. What he can’t see through his office windows, he can watch on a 62-inch plasma TV linked to a security system outfitted with 60 cameras.

THE HEART OF BUSINESS

Designed for Diamonds

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Sabet will peruse his inventory solely for the thrill of looking at diamonds, and he travels every six to eight weeks on buying trips. “I love the mystique of diamonds, I love the beauty of diamonds and I love that each diamond is as different and unique as each person who purchases one,” he says.

His first sale in the new store was an 11.5-carat emerald-cut diamond for which he had searched the world. That first happy customer has since sent him 20 referrals for major purchases. Sabet’s focus is selling diamonds in comfort and privacy, and in the best possible light. So he designed the corner building with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The interior color scheme is neutral to let the diamonds steal the show. Thirteen diamond-viewing rooms are furnished with conference tables, three chairs, diamond scales and iMac computers equipped with isee2 technology that measures the light performance of the diamond as well as carat weight, clarity, color and cut.

Potential buyers are able to compare multiple diamonds, side by side. “The main focus was to design it so we could sell and educate customers on loose diamonds and the performance that they give,” he says.

THE PLANNING

Room to Grow

Sabet says the building didn’t need to be as grand as it is, but  he wanted to plan for the future as well as make an immediate impression. “Our strategy was that if we built a magnificent, 16,000-square-foot jewelry store in the heart of Bethesda, we can have a huge presence with plenty of room to grow. If you grow out of the store you cannot service your customers. Our commitment to the market is tremendous, and we’re there for the long run.”

Planning for the future included wiring the entire building for computer stations. “I want to be able to service the client purchasing online as well as I service the lady or gentleman coming into the store.” In the back, 10 cubicles are equipped with desks and staff for Internet sales and special orders. “The phone just rings off the hook back there,” Sabet says.

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THE STAFF

Educating Experience

An oval, second-floor conference room that seats 25 is equipped with a flat-screen TV for training and vendor presentations. After every buying trip to Israel or Belgium, Sabet explains to his staff how each diamond was purchased. Most of the 15 staff members have taken GIA courses or are graduate gemologists. “When a customer comes in I want them to know we are an authority. And we’re not selling them. We’re educating them. We don’t believe in hard salesmanship.”

Everyone in the store, he says, is also trained in custom design, another important component of the business. “I tell them what the designers are doing, I explain the CAD/CAM process, and now my staff is strong at selling custom jewelry,” he says. Two goldsmith rooms, with a capacity for 12 jewelers, are equipped with state-of-the-art design equipment and the capacity to melt, polish, design and forge gold, silver and platinum. “We love to do custom work, while many jewelers do not want to do it. We fabricate everything by hand. My custom work can be a $250 gold pendant or a bracelet for $240,000. I love to create.”

FIVE QUESTIONS

John Sabet, owner

1Where did the name Charleston Alexander come from? It’s not a person. We wanted a name that just made a statement. “Sabet Diamonds” didn’t ring well to us.

2What is your advice to other jewelers? Focus, focus, focus. My advice to all of us right now is pick a direction, focus on that direction and do not let up. I live and breathe diamonds, and I want to be the best at what I do.

3What percentage of your sales are online? Currently, 15 percent. Our future will be the Internet with loose diamonds. The Internet must be a part of your business, either as an invitation to see what you’re about, or as an e-commerce online business. So either you resist the Internet and put your head in the sand, or you embrace it. If you invest time, knowledge and effort in the Internet, you will have success. Nothing comes easy.

4How important is marketing? We do tremendous radio. We’re on at least three weeks out of every month. We do a lot of advertising in the Washington Post. We do direct mail, high-gloss color magazines. And we also do a lot of advertising online.

5What is your sales philosophy? Always work hard to go beyond customer expectations and truly earn their business. If you have this philosophy and you execute it properly the business and the growth comes automatically with that.

STORE IMAGES

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This story is from the May 2008 edition of INSTORE

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